“Picasso bolts,” said his owner Emmy Pavelka. “Whenever anyone tries to get on to ride him, he bolts.”
First though, Chris Irwin, Canada’s and one of the world’s foremost horse whisperers, had to contend with the horse Concert Pianist, who had not been ridden in three years. The horses were in Lesley and John Trevor’s Snowslip Farms barn on River Road in Lake Placid in response to a “Dark Horse Challenge” proposed by the Trevors: nominate your most challenging horse so that Irwin can demonstrate how even such a difficult animal can be reached and, doing so, show us how they can help us become better leaders.
The notion of a horse whisperer, a person adept at healing and training traumatized horses or, as Robert Redford said, helping horses with people problems, was popularized by the movie The Horse Whisperer and has stimulated a whole industry of equine assisted therapy programs, these days often directed at people living with PTSD and similar challenges.
Author of two books, Dancing with Your Dark Horse and Horses Don’t Lie, Chris Irwin’s focus is on the caregiver and the leader be it one seeking to lead oneself. Yes, what he can do with horses is amazing. What Irwin does not do is use horses to heal people: They are not the healers; we have to be the healers. What the horses can do, and do extremely well, is provide immediate feedback on the most minute changes in our behavior, particularly on our body language, which in many ways communicates our true intentions far more effectively than our words can ever do.
“What the horse is looking for, and hopefully will experience this evening, is evolved leadership,” said Irwin, hours before his workshop. “The people who have attempted to lead them in the past have only stressed them out, disenchanted them, made them angry, and made them frightened. The horses have their typical responses to stress: fight, flight, or shut down. Horses do it, animals do it, and people do it. So the process I go through with these horses is, what change in human behavior do they need to see to not only accept, but embrace and be appreciative of human beings as their leaders.
The work with horses is a model, an experiential model, not a theoretical model but an experiential model for managing our own vulnerability. It’s a paradigm shift in how we go about resolving conflicts, both internal conflicts and external conflicts. We have to lead ourselves to effectively lead others. What I’m going to demonstrate tonight is, Healer heal thyself. Leader lead thyself. The buck stops here. Before you try to change the world, be the change.”
The first horse to meet Irwin was Concert Pianist. In the ring, Irwin walked with a whip, but not in the sense of a bullwhip: imagine a long, slender, flexible pole with a long, thin line attached that had a small ribbon at its end – a variation on a buggy whip. Its purpose was to simulate the nip one horse might give another. During its hour, the horse continually tested Irwin, rarely using the same combination of moves, to determine who was leader. In the end, the horse was following Irwin around nudging him for affection. The difference was when Irwin walked into the ring, he acted like no other human the horse Concert Pianist had ever met: he acted like a horse – a horse that was aware of any nuance presented and had a response to it that said, “I’m the leader, follow me and I will keep you safe.”
Next was Picasso. By the end of this hour, Irwin had saddled Picasso and straddled him. Picasso had not — as he had always before — bolted, leaving his rider hanging on for dear life or in the dust. Irwin did not ride Picasso forward as he felt the horse was not ready, although this would be possible in the days ahead. For the moment, Irwin had taken the horse far further than the horse, owner, or crowd had imagined possible.
“What he’s doing is something no one has ever done before,” said Picasso’s owner Emmy Pavelka. “I am hoping he can help Picasso over his fear and teach me how to do the same. I am now hopeful. I believe Picasso is worth the effort. Chris has a great way with horses.”
“I was thrilled,” said Linda Almeida. “Chris was revealing that Picasso has some serious trust and confidence issues with someone on his back. I believe that Chris’ respect for Picasso, his efforts, can help the horse be the horse it wants to be.”
“I have known Concert Pianist since she was born,” said owner Ken Edwards. “I have over $50,000 in that horse but she has such a bad attitude she wasn’t worth $2,000 to me. If a guy like Chris Irwin can find her brain and connect with it like he just did in the ring, that’s awesome.”
“I knew this horse was like Wow! and he pegged her,” said Jenny Edwards.
“That was wonderful!” said Marcy Wenn. “Chris made so much sense! It was inspiring, and this facility is so beautiful.”
“I thought it was fantastic,” said Ken Edwards. “I told Chris it was like watching an artist. When I see bonding like that between a human and a horse, that’s an art.”
“I have ridden horses all my life,” said Sonja Edwards. “I saw the movie The Horse Whisperer and I have seen documentaries, but to see one live was a dream come true in my life. It was so fabulous.”
“I loved his analogies with skiing,” said Gail Doering, “not being afraid of the slope and just relaxing. It was filled with so many life lessons that ski coaches – all those who train others — could use: learning how to read body language, to work with people, and to be patient.”
“What we had tonight was a process where people sat for two and a half hours requiring full focus to be in sync with Chris and what he was doing with the horses. It had a pace that brought everyone back to the pace of nature, not the pace of a tweet or email. It required patience from the audience and the audience gave it. People want instant results; there are no instant results. There’s need for awareness of all aspects of the horse. He gave us the language and helped us become fluent in it,” said Lesley Trevor. “Everyone wanted him to ride Picasso and he could have. He was there for the horse though, not there to rush it.”
On Sunday, after Irwin had ridden Picasso and given Emmy a lesson on how to rebuild her relationship with her horse, she said, “I feel very empowered. I have an assignment. Chris is an excellent teacher. Picasso and I were both badly hurt. Now we have to start again from the ground up, but we’re going to get there.”
“You’ve come a long way in a few days, haven’t you Picasso,” said Irwin to the horse. “You are going to be just fine. The trickiest thing for a human being with a horse is to have good hands. I will go boldly through the valley of death because I know I’m in your hands, that’s the meaning of good hands – that if something unexpected happens, you’ll turn him into a halt, into a safe place. You will herd him to safety.”
Irwin will be back. On Oct 15, 2013 Irwin announced in a guest editorial in the Lake Placid News that he and Kathryn Kincannon, his colleague, business partner, and spouse, will be establishing their American National Center for their transformative work with people and horses in Lake Placid. He wrote, “we want to expand awareness for Lake Placid as a destination for well-being, personal development and the pursuit of excellence and integrity in coaching, counseling, teaching and leadership. We are now taking the first steps towards producing a weekly television program from Snowslip Farm. The theme of the show will be how immersing people in a community and natural environment such as Lake Placid, while experiencing the personal challenge of working with horses to enhance life skills, is the good medicine so many of us need in order to find a sense of peace, calm and well being during these fast paced, hi-tech times of uncertainty and stress.”
The Dark Horse Challenge reception was donated by Generations Restaurant. For more information: http://www.snowslipfarm.com
Photo: Michael Platt and Chelsea Berggien with Tieke.